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Vero’s finance and utility panels get extreme makeover

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of December 15, 2011)

The Vero Beach Finance and Utility Commissions went from completely ineffectual to obstructionist to near-mutinous in less than one year – and now they have been reconstituted.

A solid, proactive, three-vote bloc emerged last week as Mayor Pilar Turner, Vice Mayor Craig Fletcher and City Councilwoman Tracy Carroll unapologetically replaced members of both commissions with people committed to selling the electric utility to Florida Power and Light.

Utilities Commission Chairman Herb Whittall, who appeared in the Florida Municipal Electric Association’s infamous You Tube video bashing the sale, is gone. So are his colleagues Bob Blumstein, Duane Wasmuth and Thomas Burkett.

The new Utilities Commission consists of city residents Scott Stradley, Chuck Mechling and former Councilman Brian Heady, plus Shores representative Edward Weigner and county residents Bill Jenkins and Daniel Fourmont.  Long-time commission member Jane Burton was moved down to an alternate and Toby Hill is now the second alternate. Stradley, Jenkins, Weigner and Burton are the only holdovers from the previous commission.

Councilman Dick Winger's seat on the Finance Commission needed to be filled and Winger re-appointed existing member Bill Teston. Councilman Jay Kramer's appointee, Peter Gory, also kept his seat, but the balance of the Finance Commission has turned over. New members are Glen Bovant, Scott McCracken and Kathryn Barton. New alternates are Raymond Darling and Cliff Norris.

Criticized by some for stacking the commissions, council members have the right to appoint who they want to advise them. Both Turner and Carroll placed the item on the agenda because they wanted new blood.

"The council wants people with courage, people who will be creative and look for solutions," said utility activist and CPA Glenn Heran. "The naysayers and hand-wringers are gone because all they could do was look for problems and reasons why not to get things done."

What, exactly are the new people supposed to do, now that they’ve been appointed?

“It’s not asking if we can sell,” Turner said. “It’s asking how we can sell. Finding ways to make the transition smoother.”

Turner said she would like to rely on Utilities Commission members especially to task themselves with studying what will be in the anticipated contract with FPL and also to consider what is not in the contract.

“Once we get a draft contract, if they see anything that hasn’t been thought about, any stranded costs, how can we handle those issues,” she said. “I envision that a contract that we get from FPL will be the bones and we’ll kind-of start putting the meat on the bones.”

What does Turner not want to see out of the commissions?

Definitely not broad-brush resolutions to halt or slow negotiations like the resolutions passed this summer by both commissions to put the brakes on water-sewer talks with the county and to delay inking a deal with FPL until all the city’s legal entanglements have been cleaned up.

“They’re there certainly not to set policy,” she said. “They’re there to advise.”

One thing Turner said she feels the council needs advice on is a direction forward for the city’s water and wastewater utility.

“Certainly I want them to look at these proposals to the Shores and to see what they come back with,” she said. “Certainly I would hope for the Utility Commission, as well as the Finance Commission, to look at anything before we would be asked to vote on anything with regard to Indian River Shores.

“And of course I would love to expedite the removal of the wastewater treatment plant off the river,” she said.

Turner said the committees could look at rate sufficiency and the budgets, capital programs and whether or not capital projects should be paid for with borrowing or should be incorporated into the rate structure.

With regard to former Councilman Brian Heady, Turner said she realizes Heady may use his new position on the commission to dredge up some of his old favorite causes, but that the group as reconstituted might serve as a good proving ground for Heady’s many ideas.

“And we’ll filter out the good stuff and use it,” she said.

Tracy Carroll also insisted on shaking up the commissions. She, too has some ideas about how the advisory board could best help the city.

“I would like them to objectively determine if the offer that comes from FPL is in the best interest of the city,” she said.

“I would like them to look at the current budget and make extrapolations from there, and to assist council in whatever financial analysis is necessary.

“I’d like the Finance Commission to not just be concerned with the FPL deal, but also we are looking at putting out for bid the health insurance and all these other aspects of things that we’re doing,” she said.

Proposals should pass muster with the commissions before taking up loads of council time, Carroll said.

“In the past we’ve been presented these things by the city manager that this is a good deal and we rubber stamp it,” she said. “Let those guys do the research. Have the community go through them and see what fits.
“When we tried to compose these commissions months ago, we had very few people in the community interested,” Carroll said. “Now more people have shown interest and have come forward to serve, and I think we should take advantage of that increased level of interest.”